I Need to Teach Reading Comprehension

My students can’t make sense of their textbooks.

I sort of clued in to that last year, but the full weight of it is finally hitting me.  Part of the problem is that I’ve never met an electronics textbook I liked — topics are always organized for memorizing rules, which means they’re backward for conceptual understanding.  Also, they assume that students in an electronics course have mastered high school physics.  It’s an entrance requirement, after all.  Yes, they all passed that course, but to assume that they understood it is patent nonsense.  So my displeasure with the textbook was obvious to last year’s students, who blamed their lack of comprehension on it being a “bad textbook,” and I ended up having to do damage control all year.

This year, I kept my complaints to myself.  I realized that students needed some coaching on how a textbook is different from a novel or a newspaper, so I had a class on identifying structural elements, finding things in the glossary, knowing when to use the index vs. when to use the table of contents (most didn’t know the difference), etc.  And that was helpful.  We’re doing better at using the textbook like a dictionary, not a bedtime story.  And once we got those obstacles out of the way, I started noticing a bunch of other things that had been hidden under them.

Most of my students can’t tell where specifically they got lost.   Q: What did you find confusing about last night’s reading?  A: All of it!

Most of my students have reading comprehension strategies.  If they get lost while reading text that is about a familiar topic, they have ways to get unlost.  I know this because I see them stopping, rereading, marking their books, etc.  But they are unaware of their strategies, or don’t realize that those things help with comprehension.  They do them sort of intuitively, without thinking about them, and can’t name them when asked.  That means that when they read text that is about an unfamiliar topic, they can’t call on those strategies consciously, and so the whole text seems hopeless.  Q: What can you do to help yourself figure out the meaning?  A: Nothing!

Other broad issues are at play here: their unfamiliarity with self-assessment, the common assumption that learning is something that happens effortlessly to “smart” people, their shame at not knowing and tendency to hide the evidence.  I’m slowly starting to learn how to deal with those too.  But the reading baffled me.

This reading process by Chris Hill helped.  I really like Mortimer Adler’s book How To Read A Book, and maybe I’ll adapt some of that material. I also learned a bunch from reading Cris Tovani’s book I Read It But I Don’t Get It.  Readable, well-organized, persuasive, concrete… I loved this book. Unfortunately it is a giant catalogue of things I now realize I should be doing in my classroom, but was oblivious to. On practically every page I had a face-palm moment, recognizing my own students’ complaints in her anecdotes, and realizing, “oh, THAT’s what they’re doing.” Tovani got me thinking about great questions, and provided lots of example exercises or lesson plans that made sense to me:

  • How to find your confusion
  • How to deal with confusion when you find it
  • How to mark text
  • How to find a purpose when it seems like there’s no point
  • How to make predictions that are not outlandish

And these ideas are not just about reading comprehension. I get the feeling they’re about comprehension in general; in other words, some of this material is about teaching critical thinking and intentional learning.  Wrangling this stuff into a format I can use in class goes in the file of “summer projects”…


  1. One of your comments jumped out at me because of the connection to the work I do. It was that : “… these ideas are not just about reading comprehension. I get the feeling they’re about comprehension in general; in other words, some of this material is about teaching critical thinking and intentional learning.”

    What you’re talking about is helping students learn how to learn, and that is at the core of what NSCC calls ‘portfolio learning’. It’s been a vague term around the college, not because we don’t ‘do’ portfolio learning, but because we don’t recognize that what we do ‘is’ portfolio learning … it’s any approach that values critical thinking, figuring out solutions, recognizing transferability of skills an knowledge, thinking deeper than the surface thoughts …

    Your posts here are refreshing. You, yourself, are engaged in your own portfolio learning, taking experiences and making sense of them, critically reflecting on what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, what’s working, what fits with who you are and how you work with your learners. People learning about their own way of learning … it’s happening all over your classroom! 🙂

    • Hi Sheila, thanks for your thoughtful comments, and succinct definition. I am increasingly alarmed by how deeply my students believe that learning is something that happens to you. Now I understand that part of my job is to help them take control of their learning. I certainly hope that I model this for my students, even while my own understanding of it is changing rapidly. I used to think I had a responsibility to learn about myself and my trade (electronics). Now I’m coming to believe that it is also “incumbent on teachers to become scholars of [our own teaching]. So many teachers are not scholars of their own profession, and we have to own that played a role in letting those who spoke with authority about their ‘research-based solutions’ command the debate.”

      Another favourite quote: 2:15. Confucius said, “He who learns but does not think is lost; he who thinks but does not learn is in danger.”

  2. Hi Mylene,

    I get my students to read the relevant sections of the textbook before coming to class. It’s not as good of a model as the fully-flipped with screencasting one that you sometimes use, but the reading is what I have been using. I have tried reading quizzes at the beginning of classes, but you have to make the questions pretty easy and they end up doing well even by guessing (I had been administering these using clickers). Argh! So what I do is as follows (It is basically JiTT without any large changes to my lesson plan based on their submissions):

    1. Assign reading

    2. Give them 2-3 fairly easy conceptual multiple-choice questions and ask them explain their reasoning in addition to simply answering the questions

    3. Get them to submit via web-form or email

    4. Respond to everybody’s submissions for each question to clear up any mistakes in their thinking. I use a healthy dose of copy and paste after the first few and can make it through 30ish submissions in just over an hour.

    5. Give them some sort of credit for each question in which they made an effortful response whether they were correct or incorrect.

    • Hi Joss, thanks for the details (and link — I need to learn more about JiTT). I suspect that assigning reading is actually a better model than screencasts… after all, what will the students do when there’s no one around to make a custom screencast for them? *shrug* Anyway, I’ve been thinking about using “homework quizzes” or something like that, and I like the idea of collecting their questions before the class. Google Moderator has come to my attention as a possible way of submitting questions… might be a project for this summer.

      • The main difference between what I do and a “proper” JiTT implementation is that they advocate agile teaching where you plan your lesson/lecture period based on the things that the students had the most trouble with from the reading. Instead of doing this, I plow ahead with my regular plan, but bring information in from the reading questions. JiTT actually has a bunch of examples of non-multiple-choice questions to use (estimation, web-applet, and so on), but I have found that the multiple-choice with explain your reasoning seems to get the most coherent answers from them and the least “I have no idea” answers. Anyway, I will sometime generate a clicker question for class from the estimation problem from the reading, or put a student quote from the submissions up on a relevant slide “I didn’t understand how x led to y” and then will have a mini-lecture or classroom discussion to address it. Between personally responding to their submissions and explicitly bringing up their clarification question in class I managed to generate enough buy-in to get a 78% completion rate over the term which is comparable to a regular homework completion rate.

        Yeesh, I’m going on aren’t I?

        I agree with your point about, for long-term behaviors, the reading assignment are probably better than the screencasts, but I view the reading assignments as something that is meant to get them familiar with the terminology and lowest-level concepts, anything beyond that is what I want to work on in class. With that in mind, there is really a lot of overhead in a textbook reading and the screencasting will allow me to focus on what I had wanted them to get out of the reading in a way that is a more efficient use of their time, which would hopefully help generate a bit more student buy-in.

        For me, Google Moderator isn’t a good solution because I want to have that 1-on-1 feedback cycle between me and the reader that helps me see if the have actually done the reading and tried to make sense of it. Google Moderator might work to get the “what didn’t you understand about the reading” questions out there and help you easily decide which ones are the most important to address. With only 36 students in my courses, I usually just mentally keep track of the questions and have a sense of which ones to address. In a huge lecture section, the feedback I give would not be possible and keeping track of issues mentally might also be a big challenge.

    • Hi again Joss, this was really enlightening and I found myself writing a much-too-long response. I’m going to move your comment and my answer into a post of its own.

      • I often get to a certain length of comment where I wonder if it might make more sense to have a new post, but never actually do it 🙂

  3. […] I need to teach reading comprehension: Mylene and I chat about how to get students to read and make sense of their textbooks. It turns into a discussion of my sort-of-implementation of JiTT (Just-in-Time Teaching) and some compare and contrast of student textbook reading vs. screencasting. Mylene took some of comments and incorporated them into a post on student preparation for class. Mylene had an insanely busy blogging week with 7 new posts (and she even got fresh-pressed) so make sure to check out some of her other posts from the week. […]

  4. Mylène,
    Cris Tovani’s book is awesome (and she is a great teacher and person). I would also recommend Ellin Keene’s books, “Mosaic of Thought” and “To Understand” as reading comprehension resources. They have changed the way that I teach math and teachers.

  5. Hi John, interesting points. I have heard the “one-time boost” argument before, as well as the claim that time spent teaching reading strategies comes at an “opportunity cost” of time spent on content. I’m not completely sure how to make sense of the contradiction between these findings and my experience. I am seeing significant and continuing gains in my students’ skills in critiquing their reasoning, making supported inferences, applying ideas to novel contexts, and synthesizing. Since it’s part of the content, it’s not taking time away from content. And these gains are strongly correlated with (some of) the listed techniques.

    I get the feeling that, in a lot of discussions about reading comprehension, people are talking past each other. Willingham’s post is typical of other sources I’ve read that

      A) refer to “sessions” on reading comprehension that are apparently not part of a class about something other than reading comprehension,
      B) talk mostly about fiction, and
      C) relate to students who’ve been taught reading comprehension techniques too many times, for too long.

    The situation in my classroom is that

      A) We are using reading comprehension techniques to make sense of text we need in order to accomplish something else,
      B) We are reading trade publications (not the kind of stuff you should “get lost in the narrative flow” of, unless you want that robotic arm to kill someone),
      C) We are in a trade school (so although it is fun, my students pay good money to make sure that it is as much like Willingham’s dreaded “work” as we can make it), and
      D) My students claim never to have heard of any of these techniques before.

    Willingham makes a claim that surprised me:

    Some reading comprehension strategies might be useful for other reasons. For example, a teacher might want her class create a graphic organizer as a way of understanding how an author builds narrative arc.

    “Other reasons?” Other than what… reading comprehension for its own sake? Remember, I don’t know anything about the inner workings of the K-12 world — never taught there, don’t have an ed. degree, etc. Are there people somewhere teaching reading comprehension for its own sake, disconnected from “other reasons?” Is this part of the “raising short-term test scores, without regard to any other effects” frustration that American teachers are battling?

    Willingham elaborates in the comments:

    I don’t mean to say that teaching kids to deeply analyzing text by asking questions about it gives little to know benefit.” [sic] … The effectiveness of reading comprehension strategies are usually assessed by reading tests… They measure whether or not you got the gist. I agree that the activities listed as reading comprehension strategies might be useful as ways of probing deeper into a text. … There’s no research base for this as far as I know–I’m just saying a teacher may think its [sic] effective (and it sure sound reasonable to me).

    Oh. Maybe this is where we’re getting our wires crossed. As I allude to above, my students do ok at “getting the gist.” I’m not assessing whether they “got the gist.” We’re using these techniques to give well-reasoned critiques of the source — whether the source is a textbook author, the students, or me. I can’t help thinking that this research and my work are apples and oranges.

    I hope you won’t hesitate to disagree — I really am trying to make sense of this.

  6. Mylene,
    I think you are right. I think Willingham is talking about the vague and amorphous “reading comprehension” that gets taught throughout middle and high school to many students. I don’t think he is talking about the very focused work you do to help students be able to access highly technical material and digest the chains of reasoning it presents, and I think this might account for the difference in results you see.

    • Interesting — lots more I want to learn here. Any suggestions for where to learn more about current practices in middle and high school reading comprehension would be welcome. I don’t have any sources except for those decrying its abuses — see for example this post in response to a video making point similar to Willingham’s.

      Willingham makes a distinction between time spent in “instruction” of strategies, time spent “practicing” strategies, and then “being in the habit” of using strategies. I can see that repeatedly informing students of the usefulness of summarizing would quickly become pointless. But what’s the difference between “practicing” and “being in the habit” of doing something? It makes me visualize a classroom where students are repeatedly summarizing paragraphs of irrelevant info just for the sake of getting better at summarizing. Is that happening?

      He goes on to say that “Literate adults do not construct story maps
      as they read the morning paper, nor do they pose and answer
      questions for themselves.” Story maps, no. But posing and answering questions? Goodness, with the quality of journalism these days, if you’re not doing that, you might be better off not reading the paper. I’ve used most of the reading strategies he names just to make sense of his blog post. Surely we’re talking about (at least) two different ideas here… maybe a wider range of descriptions is needed. I’ll try to corral these thoughts into a coherent blog post once I get going on the rest of the backlog!

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